Could this be the beginning of finalising the succession in the BJP-led NDA government and reasserting the party's core Hindutva agenda? One of the important elements of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's mid-term cabinet expansion plan is a larger role for home minister L.K. Advani in the government and the party organisation. There was intense speculation last week that he may even be elevated as deputy prime minister.
Even though Advani has been functioning as the No. 2 in the government and is privy to every important decision taken by the PM, the designation itself would confer on him de jure authority, making the line of succession in the BJP absolutely clear. Not that there were many contenders to begin with. Before Tehelka, people close to George Fernandes fancied his chances. To neutralise that, Vajpayee last fortnight apparently chose Fernandes to talk to the allies and ask them if they had any reservations about Advani's re-designation. While most NDA constituents have no problem, the views of Chandrababu Naidu are not yet known. Chances are that if the move fructifies, it will be Fernandes who, as convenor of the NDA, may propose Advani's name for the elevation.
Does the elevation mean the creation of a parallel power centre? And would Vajpayee like it? Officials cite the example of earlier deputy PMs like Vallabhbhai Patel, Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram and Devi Lal, who "were remembered for what they did and not for what positions they held". Some of these earlier appointments had been made after bitter political wrangling and were seen basically as compromise positions, as there is no constitutional provision for such a designation.
Sources also say that Advani's elevation—if it happens—is part of the larger gameplan which looks at elections and instals hardline Sangh leaders into crucial positions. "There is no doubt that there
is increasing RSS pressure on Vajpayee to revert to their Hindutva agenda. The votes lie there. The secular vote is too crowded," says a source. In early 2003, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh would be going to polls. Later the same year, assembly elections are due in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Chhattisgarh. Early 2004, state assemblies like Orissa, Karnataka and Bihar will go to polls and by September-October 2004, general elections are due.
Ever since Advani returned from his European tour last week, hectic confabulations have been on between him and the prime minister about the impending cabinet reshuffle, which Vajpayee has already indicated will be a major one. Also on the cards is major organisational changes, including a possible change of party president and the induction of some of the younger ministers into the organisation.